Town square: Conover makes its mark in innovation
Conover carves a distinctive niche as an innovator for manufacturing.
There’s a new mayor in this Piedmont town with a long history of people making a long list of things. The presumptive new mayor is 53 years old, has a desk job, has only the slightest trace of a Southern accent and has a birthplace listed as Fort Myers, Florida. But ask Kyle Hayman, a longtime city council member and mayor pro tem, about his connection to Conover, and he speaks with the rootedness of a native son.
“We’re an area where people create things,” he says from his office as district claims manager for North Carolina Farm Bureau Insurance. He ran unopposed in the Nov. 2 mayoral race to succeed Lee Moritz, who decided not to run after 12 years as mayor. “We’re makers,” Hayman continues. “And people here for generations were accustomed to making furniture, and to making things in general.”
In this city of about 8,600 people, straddling Interstate 40, the makers have made cabinets, doors, dining room tables, ottomans, window sashes, gloves, axe handles, pantyhose and socks. Even as furniture making has rearranged itself and largely gone overseas, Conover is still home to a downtown furniture factory. Lee Industries, with four plants in North Carolina employing about 700 people, is headquartered here in Conover. Plant employees make everything from sofas and loveseats to desks and tables.
Broyhill Furniture, one of the city’s big-name employers starting in 1941, boarded up in 2005 and laid off a dwindling staff of about 100. The city of Conover bought the 26-acre site and, with help from $6.8 million in grant money, developed Conover Station. It houses a library and the Community Room, which is used for civic events and is rented out for private parties.
Directly west of Conover is Hickory, a name synonymous with furniture manufacturing. It has a population nearly five times larger. The surrounding county, Catawba, includes ample oak-and-hickory woodlands that supplied the raw material for making furniture, and its swift creeks and rivers have powered textile mills. But textiles, like furniture, have also faded from this landscape, with plants hollowing out and companies chasing cheaper labor abroad.
Hosiery mills, makers of pantyhose and socks, have long put people to work in the area, leading to the creation of the Hosiery Technology Center in the 1990s. The textile industry had approached Catawba Valley Community College about providing modernized training for the hosiery workforce, weaning workers off manual machines and teaching them to operate electronics. As the area’s economy grew more diverse, and the textile industry more innovative, the center cast a wider net, appealing to a variety of ventures. In 2009, it changed its name to the Manufacturing Solutions Center.
“We had grown as a testing lab for other things and realized it was really hard to go into the non-hosiery, non-textile sector and have anything to offer them,” says Jodi Geis, the center’s director. “We realized we needed to kind of rebrand.” With money from the city, community college and N.C. Economic Development Association, the center moved into a new building in Conover Station in 2012.
The center serves as a place for inventors and entrepreneurs to seek expertise, do research, try new things and, of course, make new things. One of the start-ups is Nufabrx, which in August was ranked No. 50 on Inc. 5000’s list of the fastest-growing U.S. private companies. It was first in the Charlotte region. Jordan Schindler founded the company in 2011 after noticing that his pillowcase was contributing to his acne. He partnered with MIT scientists to put medical ingredients into the yarn of clothing and other fabrics.
“It’s the idea that instead of having to take a pill or use a cream or patch, what if you just get dressed in the morning,” says Schindler, 30. A native of Tucson, Arizona, he most recently lived in Seattle but moved to North Carolina when he discovered the manufacturing center. “Within 10 minutes of visiting that facility, we knew exactly where we had to be,” he says. “I mean, it’s $50 million worth of textile testing, knitting, hosiery – all the things you don’t think about when you buy a garment.”
Walmart now carries the company’s medication-infused sleeves to relieve knee, hand and wrist pain. It has 35 employees, a manufacturing site in Asheboro and raised $10 million in October to expand more rapidly. During the COVID pandemic, the company and other start-ups at the center shifted to making personal protective equipment.
Along with Nufabrx, the four other start-up clients at the center are Evolved By Nature, InnovaKnits, Knit Engine and YU Apparel Corporation. “It’s cool stuff,” says Tony Whitener, the center’s special projects director. “In some cases, these start-ups are divisions of mature companies that have started textile divisions and they recognize they need to be where the expertise is.”
Geis adds that “It’s not your grandfather’s textiles. These are highly educated, unique start-ups. The things they’re doing there are for military applications, medical applications, all across the board.”
The incubator has spurred enough growth that it needs more space. In May, the city and the college broke ground on a 30,000-square-foot addition to the center, which will include labs for creating new fabrics and personal-protection equipment. A $9 million appropriation from the N.C. General Assembly is paying for the expansion. “That’s where we hope to move some of our incubators as we grow their businesses,” Geis says. “These small start-ups are thriving.”
A FORK IN THE RAILROAD
Like countless towns and cities across North Carolina, Conover traces its origins back to the railroad. The community emerged here in 1871 at a “Y” intersection of the Southern Railway and became known as Wye Town. Before long, some locals named it Canova, supposedly for a famous Italian sculptor. Given the local dialect, the name morphed into Conover. The town was incorporated in 1877, inspiring the name of a popular hangout downtown: 1877 Pub and Grub.
On most any weeknight, and certainly weekends, the place is enlivened with regulars sitting at the bar or around tables. The glow of TVs and the stacked drink glasses glowing in purple LED lights give a modern touch to this century-old building with its rustic brick walls and framed old photos.
Sliding up to the bar, and recommending the Steak Bomb sandwich, is the owner, Clint Davis, 44. “I told the city I wanted to put a landmark here, something that will stay because it’s been so many things,” the Conover native says. “It was built by some of the founders of Conover and was a general store at first.” Its various iterations have included a laundromat and a restaurant named Cecil’s, serving “the best chicken wings you could possibly imagine.”
This community tavern stands along First Avenue South, which is a main street corridor lined with an old-style drug store, boutiques, a gourmet grocery store, an antique store and hair salons. At Hip Hip HooWray, a paint studio and popular venue for parties, a half-dozen clients sit down for an evening painting class. “We get a lot of people from out of town, and they’re always impressed with our downtown,” says city council member Joie Fulbright, 72, who owns Conover Auto Sales.
His car lot sits on First Avenue South, with a good view of Lee Industries, the manufacturing center and Conover City Park, six acres of green space with a splash pad, amphitheater and a half-mile asphalt walking trail. An easy stroll to the north is downtown, which underwent a makeover in the past five years. The city put in medians with decorative shrubs down the center of First Avenue South, designated a bike route along the street and spiffed up building facades.
Conover and its neighbors Hickory, Newton and Maiden are bustling with industry. The Economic Development Commission of Catawba County says the county has more than 425 manufacturers, employing nearly a third of the county’s workforce. HSM Solutions, headquartered in Hickory, makes seating components for the furniture and transportation industries, employing about 1,200 people locally. Hanes Industries, specializing in woven and nonwoven textiles, has a 250-employee plant in Conover.
Other companies with operations in Conover include 3M, which makes adhesive materials for automobiles; GKN Sinter Metals, maker of automotive transmission components; and CoPak Solutions, which churns out tortilla chips.
“For a city our size, I’d say we’re one of the most progressive cities probably in North Carolina,” says Hayman, the incoming mayor. In the past three decades, but especially after the Great Recession of 2008-09, the city had to reach beyond the old standbys. “We started to move away from traditional manufacturing and really diversify it into all kinds of manufacturing.”
The people of Conover are still making history with a long list of things to make, from medicated clothes to tortilla chips. Conover, many would say, has it made. ■